Nothing renders me as helpless as my 3-year-old son’s night terrors. If I make it in time, my touch is enough to absorb his fear. But if I arrive a second too late, I find him terrified by something he can’t name and may forget by morning.
I measure my success as a parent by my two boys’ awareness of my love, and how safe they feel. So when I don’t get there in time, I feel like a failure.
That’s because they only see what I do, not my intentions. They do not know what I want for them — what I am desperate to give — unless I actually come through. On the nights I don’t make it to their room in time, or on the days when I fail to be present, or worse, withdraw from them because of my fears, I am not enough. I’m sure my mother never intended to let me down. But she did, and that disappointment cast a shadow on my childhood.
My mother was the Newport 100 cigarettes she smoked and the empty cans of Pepsi she left lying around the house. She was her weekly trips to the emergency room — for what, exactly, I was too young to know — and her dramatic emotional outbursts, often aimed at me. She was forgotten parent-teacher conferences, her body’s constant weakness, the way she seemed to have it all together when my friends came over, only to lose her mind when we were alone. In my eyes, my mother was defined by her brokenness and her addiction. Those things always eclipsed her best intentions.
So from a young age, I vowed never to be like her. My future children would never see their mother passed out, strung out, lashing out. I would never sleep too late. I would never miss an opportunity to be what they needed exactly when they needed it. I would have it together.
But then they came, and I didn’t.
I didn’t always make it in time when my son cried. I let him watch too much TV so I could work (or tune out when he was too much work). And some nights, I hid from my anxiety with a few too many glasses of wine and woke up the next day resenting my responsibility. My weakness wasn’t drugs, but I failed them nonetheless, and continue to fail them three years in. But didn’t I, in my determination to compensate for my own childhood, set myself up for that?
Spotlight on weakness
We are all perfect parents before we have children. Armed with the ideals we have collected since childhood, but none of the experience we need to know what we are up against, we will our children’s lives to be at best idyllic and at worst stable — and in my case, anxiety-free. But when our children come, they shine a spotlight on our weaknesses. And not only do they see us for what we are, but we do, too — perhaps for the first time. Only now can I see that for the gift it is. Because in the heat and pressure of stewarding another life, we become what we want so desperately to be. Only when we are face to face with our brokenness do we ever have a shot at wholeness.
My mom’s autoimmune disease and opioid addiction took up a lot of space in my life. She didn’t intend to do it, but her actions required me to surrender my childhood much earlier than I should have. She was sick in more ways than I can name. Still, she was my best friend — the one who understood, nurtured and celebrated me without condition. I wish she were here to charm my children, or to embarrass me in front of my husband with her wry sense of humor. Maybe that’s why I spent so much of my life disappointed by my mom: Because I saw her beauty, and I wanted her to invite me into it.
A few years after she died, I found my mother’s journal. “I love Ashley so much,” she wrote. “I want to give her better than I have so far. I wish things could be different.” Though I knew it in my gut by that time, seeing my mother’s secret wishes — her desire to give me more — was exactly what I needed to redefine my childhood not by my mother’s shortcomings, but by her intentions.
For too many years I resented my mom for her inability to give me the security I needed. But even on my best days, I am really just like her: A mom who, through the shards of her own brokenness, intends to love her children.